social advocacy

The Feminist Fail

This one’s for the women.

When I was growing up, for a silly while there, I refused to call myself a feminist. I didn’t know any better at the time. Living in a super conservative community, the only thing my history classes had taught me about feminism was bra burning, and as a teen who developed early, I needed my bras, thank you very much. (I wish I was kidding.)

Then I got to college. It didn’t take long for my views on the f-word to change. OF COURSE I was a feminist. YES to pay equality. YES to reproductive rights. YES to bodily autonomy. FUCK YOU rape culture. I was a loud, proud, in your face feminist determined to raise my daughter as such.

When I left college and began writing in earnest, though, that badge of honor grew heavier and more cumbersome. The bright and shiny feminism that had so inspired me now seemed strikingly white, painfully straight, and more than a little out of touch with the times. I was uncomfortable watching women with skin like mine telling women of color to pipe down and get in line. I remember my horror when learning about Sangers’ eugenics and the “lavender menace.”

I tried to quell my misgivings with self-assurances that it was all just a part of “growing pains” for the movement, but in the past several months, I’ve grown more uncomfortable still. The pace of that growth in an era where technology gives us the ability to connect and learn from each other in an unprecedented manner seems exceedingly slow.

I’ve watched TSwift and Miley spouting the feminist version of #AllLivesMatter as women of color in the industry lamented racial disparity. I’ve watched Meryl Streep don a shirt proclaiming, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave,” before she today shrugged off film festival diversity laments by saying, “We’re all Africans.” I’ve watched people complain about Jenner receiving attention that should be reserved for “real women.” I’ve watched women of color criticizing Sanders lambasted by men and women supporting him for advancing the “politics of division.” I’ve watched Gloria Steinem tell me that I’m only supporting Sanders for the boys. I’ve watched Madeline Albright tell me there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support Clinton while the candidate herself laughed. I’ve watched feminist friends who I respect echo the same damn things with condescension that sounds a whole lot like, “GET OFF MY LAWN” while younger voices ignore entirely the historic moment we face in today’s political climate.

And you know what I think? I think there’s a special place in hell for this kind of tone deaf feminism: this feminism that says the experiences of women are homogeneous, this feminism that thinks the movement needs a singular voice, this feminism that tells people saying otherwise to shut up and sit down.

I am all for empowering women. I am there for the ongoing battles and the battles we’ve yet to wage. But we’re going to lose the war if we keep trying to corral people onto this path that ignores the battles going on to our left and right, because that strategy leaves a lot of people behind.

You may not see color, but the economy sure does. Unemployment rates for white women in the last quarter of 2015 may have been at 4%, but it was 6.7% for Hispanic and Latina women, and 8% for Black women. White women may make $0.78 to a white man’s dollar, but Black women make $0.68 on the dollar, and Hispanic and Latina women bring in only $0.54 on the dollar. And these figures can vary dramatically by region, state, and city.

And violence against women of color is not just structural. It’s estimated that 17.7% of white women will be victims of sexual assault at some point in their lives, but the numbers are worse for women of color. Approximately 40% of Black women report encountering coercive sexual activity by the age of 18, and it is estimated that for every Black woman who reports a rape, there are 15 that do not. Anti-immigrant vitriol can frequently discourage Hispanic and Latina women from reporting, regardless of immigration status. But migrant workers know all too well the dangers they face, with more than half a million women calling the fields they work “fields of panties” due to the prevalence of unchecked sexual assault.

And there are other issues that are distinctly important for women of color that white women may not give a lot of thought to in the end. Black women are eight times more likely than their white counterparts to be incarcerated, while Hispanic and Latina women are four times more likely to face jail time. When women of limited means face the legal system, they overwhelming lose.

It’s not just about color, though; sexuality and gender identity can play a significant role in risk factors, too. Half of bisexual women and more than 64% of transwomen will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.  It’s estimated that at least 20% of homeless youth are members of the LGBT community, and 41% of transwomen will attempt suicide at some point in their lives.

Let’s not forget age, either. Young women today identify as feminist in record levels. They may not have experienced the battles faced by their foremothers on the ground level, or the days before Roe v. Wade, or a world without women in politics, but they face a new set of demons. They’re the ones punching up in the face of widespread digital harassment. They’re the ones born into an economy ruined by those that came before them, a climate exacerbating the gender gap in the workforce. And their voices, in today’s political climate, are chastised for not directly aligning with women in leadership on all issues, the assumption beneath it all being that they’re not smart enough/informed enough to know what’s what. Silly little girls.

That doesn’t mean that older women don’t have unique struggles. They know, perhaps better than most, exactly what’s on the line today because it’s what they sacrificed so much for in their younger days, and are frustrated when young women remain apathetic. They’ve been hit hard by the economic downturn, as well, with wiped out retirement savings pushing them back into a workforce that doesn’t know what to do with them. Their ballooning healthcare costs are nearly incomprehensible to many younger women with relatively more robust health. The bottom line: age matters no matter which side of the spectrum you’re on.

And how about a shout out to the often dismissed women with disabilities? These are women who are statistically far more likely than other women to be assaulted, unemployed, and discriminated against, but you won’t hear much about them in feminist cannon. From forced sterilization to police violence against those with mental illness to feminist events that consistently fail to accommodate those with special needs, women with disabilities are left out in the cold at every single turn. They’re footnotes. It’s repulsive.

The point of this very surface level collection of differences is to highlight that every woman’s experience in life is unique. It’s going to be influenced by their race, their income, their sexuality, their gender identity, their location, and more. Those experiences are important, and the stories they tell should inform that fight instead of being pushed to the side if we want changes that actually make a difference. Those experiences are going to foster unique perspectives that shed light in the gaps that pepper our own. Those experiences make women as a collective so much stronger.

To argue that a feminism that does not recognize these differences and raise up the distinctive voices who can speak to them is somehow representative of the women it purports to support is breathtaking in its idiocy. When the movement and its figureheads say we only need to hear from someone that looks like them, loves like them, lives like them, they make it clear that this is not about fighting for women; it’s about fighting for women like them. It’s a demonstration of a willingness to sacrifice the women not like them to advance themselves.

So stop telling women they’re distracting from the cause when they voice an experience that deviates from the central narrative. Stop telling women they’re traitors when they dare to criticize the mainstream feminist culture. Stop telling women that the only way they can be supportive of women is if they support your woman. Stop telling women the battle they’re fighting doesn’t matter.

Just stop. Listen. It’s the only way the war gets won.


Hillary, Rape Culture, and an Uneasy Agreement with Trump

The Trump campaign has, since the beginning, seemed a caricature of what conservative politics has turned into over the past two decades. Instead of hiding behind dog whistles, he’s blatantly, proudly blasted out sexist, racist, classist and xenophobic rhetoric like it’s going out of style. It’s working for him, which is more than a little unnerving.

His sexism, in particular, is beyond question. This is a man who told an employee she’d look pretty on her knees, who disparages women’s appearances instead of engaging with critique, who accuses media members of being on their period when they dare question him, who dismisses fellow conservative competitors for not being pretty enough to win, who — when running out of options — chooses to leap on his female opponent’s use of a bathroom.

He’s a misogynist asshole. Point blank.

Last week, in yet another chapter of absurdity, he claimed that women were yuge fans of his, and that stalwart feminist icon Hillary Clinton was anti-woman. Derision, side eye, and shade came down in an avalanche, and rightfully so. There is no world in which Trump could be considered a greater ally for women.

And yet…

Alright, stay with me for a minute. Set aside your fervent love of Clinton. Simmer your Sanders adoration. Acknowledge your intense fear and loathing of the GOP field, but don’t let it cloud your vision. Put down the pitchforks for a second, and please just listen.

Because I’m about to agree — in part — with Trump. And I might hate myself more for it than you do.

See, Trump’s criticism of Hillary’s record on women wasn’t just a random jab; it was connected to the philandering ways of Bill Clinton.

At first I snorted at the support he provided for the conjecture. Frankly, I don’t care who sleeps with who and who accepts it or doesn’t. The Clintons are ostensibly good with each other despite past dalliances, and since it’s really none of my business, it’s a non issue in my mind.

If that had been the extent of his attack, I’d have gone back to a Netflix binge and chalk it up to another transparent GOP smear attempt. But Trump wasn’t just talking about the consensual extramarital affairs. He was also making reference to the accusations of sexual harassment against Bill that have come to the forefront over the years, and Hillary’s role in those sagas.

Bill has been accused by multiple women of sexual harassment or assault since his career began. Some of those accusations wound up in court. Some of them were settled outside of court. Some of them were shouted into obscurity. But they’re there, as are accounts of Hillary’s attempts to bury them with private investigators and bullying.

And this is where I get stuck as someone who tries very hard to be a good ally for survivors of sexual assault and an advocate against rape culture.

On face, I want to holler with the rest of my progressive friends about all the good Hillary’s done in her life for women, about what a positive role model she’s been. I want to say that those allegations were never proven and this is just another desperate Republican attempt to quash Hillary before she gets the nomination.

But I can’t. Because I get angry when people say that Cosby, despite numerous accusers and a record of out of court settlements, doesn’t deserve our disdain. I get frustrated when people say that Woody Allen marrying someone he’s accused of molesting excuses his gross abuse of power. I get sick when people shrug off player after player in the NFL for their assaults because the women accusing them are obviously just seeking attention. I get exasperated when people tell me to stave off judgment until a legal system (that has proven itself woefully inadequate) adjudicates another woman’s trauma, like their decision is the ultimate arbiter of reality.

And to look at Bill Clinton’s tattered history without the same critical lens because I think his wife is better than the horror show in the GOP presidential field would make me a massive hypocrite.

We can say that none of these cases were ever proven in court, but that’s a bullshit dodge. The legal system fails survivors of sexual assault early and often, starting with authorities questioning attire and prior relationships and ending with a he-said-she-said deflection.

We can choose to say fall back on the he-said-she-said excuse in general discussion of the topic, too, but that’s crap, as well. How many allies posted about how absurd it is that we discount the trauma of multiple women in order to defend the acceptance of one man’s denial when the Cosby travesty gained public notoriety once more last year? Bill has had multiple accusers, as well. He also had out of court settlements. Why does he get a pass?

We can roll our eyes and say he’s being targeted because he’s a prominent public figure. He certainly is, but that’s the exact reason why we should be willing to look at the situation critically. It is not easy for survivors to come forward under far less visible circumstances; it is infinitely harder to do so when being put under a public microscope and having your story and person torn to shreds is a certainty. Multiple women have been willing to face that level of scrutiny. That’s not something someone does for fun. And as the data shows, false accusations are exceedingly rare.

We can look the other way when considering Hillary’s behavior involving the accusations. And maybe, to some extent, that’s fair. Yes, there have been reports that she hired private investigators in order to bully accusers into silence, but a lot of those reports have also been circulated by notoriously unreliable conservative pundits and politicos. I’m willing to concede that those reports might not be true.

But those aren’t the only criticisms that can be made of Hillary on this note. Indeed, her response to Trump’s comments was problematic in and of itself. After being pressed on the subject at a New Hampshire event, Hillary replied:

I would say that everybody should be believed at first until they are disbelieved based on evidence.

It was a safe response, of course. Nothing wrong on the surface. But when you look at the history of the allegations against Bill and the way those cases were handled, the dismissal of the accusers was not a function of evidence; it was a function of politics. Hillary knows (or should know) about the infrequency of false allegations and how that information interacts with Bill’s track record, but instead of grappling with that, she’s buying whole hog into the fallacy with this comment.

And yes, we can talk about how she really doesn’t have any other pragmatic response. Evidence shows that her numbers surge during attacks like these; buying into them would be like refusing a gift horse. And the idea of having to grapple with such a disturbing reality in such a personal relationship is overwhelming, to say the least. I absolutely get that. 

But you know what’s even harder to deal with? The trauma of sexual assault. Political convenience is a crass and callous excuse here.

And while Hillary’s record is largely a positive one for women, she’s never been a particularly vocal advocate for sexual assault survivors. She’s apologized to other nations for rapes committed by American troops, but unlike her fellow female Democrats, she’s yet to call for reform in how the military handles rape cases internally. In fact, outside of rather soft rhetoric (as seen above), she’s stayed away from any substantive engagement of sexual violence issues.

Again, probably because it’s not real convenient.

And before it’s said that I’m targeting Hillary, let me make it clear that the Sanders response wasn’t a good one either. When asked about the ongoing feud between Hillary and Trump, Sanders said:

I think, you know, we have enormous problems facing this country and I think we got more things to worry about than Bill Clinton’s sexual life. I think — interestingly enough, maybe Donald Trump might want to focus attention on climate change, understand that climate change is not a hoax, as he believes that it is, that maybe Donald Trump should understand that we should raise the minimum wage in this country, which he opposes, and maybe we should not be giving huge tax breaks to fellow billionaires like Donald Trump.

So I think maybe he should focus on those things.

This is just as bad as Hillary’s deflection, if not worse. We’re not talking about “sex”; we’re talking about assault. And while I’m not going to deny that the other issues he references deserve attention, to argue that sexual assault is somehow unworthy of attention as well is an asshole move. It’s also a common move in positions of privilege to deflect conversations that are uncomfortable or politically perilous.

To be fair, I can’t let this critique discount Hillary or Sanders as candidates. Both have a lot of good to offer, and both are infinitely better candidates for president than anyone the GOP is offering. The stakes are too high to dismiss them out of hand. But being willing to accept the lesser of evils during such a time doesn’t mean we stay quiet about imperfections in the candidates we’re willing to consider. When we prioritize painting candidates as perfect over demanding they do better and be better, nothing changes, and we’re no better than the rabid GOP supporters who refuse to criticize their own party.

Listen, I hate having to give anything Trump says the time of day, but I cannot, in good conscience, just ignore this issue. And if you’re calling yourself an ally of sexual assault survivors, neither should you.

(Waits patiently for the tomatoes to start flying.)

Atheism’s Next Frontier is Intersectionality

The other day, I wrote a piece for The Friendly Atheist criticizing Richard Dawkins for his rhetorical choices in a tweet attempting to engage the subject of feminism in Islam.

The essay relied on academic and media coverage of Muslim feminist activism in addition to writings and social media posts of Muslim feminists, and argued that Dawkins’ approach to activism was problematic for a few reasons. You can read it here. The resulting uproar was fast and ugly, but in the midst of the mess, one thing was clear: the ideas involved deserve further discourse. As this is a personal response to the arguments in the mix, it is being published here instead of at The Friendly Atheist.

Let me start by saying this: I never said feminism could not be of benefit in the Muslim community. I never denied that women are often subjugated and abused under the justification of certain interpretations of Islam, particularly in Middle Eastern nations where religion is often wielded as a weapon against women. I never contended that we shouldn’t attempt to be allies to women in those positions. I don’t disagree with any of those sentiments. I disagree with the manner in which advocacy has been executed by Dawkins and others.

My argument, in a nutshell, is that we must be mindful of the ways in which we lend our support, and self-critical of our missteps along the way. Why? Why can’t it be enough to simply offer help? Because history shows us that failure to be measured in our attempts to help is often counterproductive.

Learning from Feminisms’ Failings

To lean on a Western example, one can look to the history of feminism in the United States as demonstration of the perils in advocates’ refusal to be self-critical. From the early stages of feminists’ efforts to gain equality for women, the movement stood primarily in the service of socioeconomically privileged white women.

Suffrage was pursued for white women. The pill’s initial medical trials were primarily conducted on women of color. The women’s liberation movement balked when black women even attempted to articulate the fact that, for most of them, the experience of being a woman in society was more arduous. At the time, the National Organization of Women referred to lesbians as the “lavender menace.” Even today, mainstream white feminism frequently continues to exclude voices of color, with calls for solidarity shouting out attempted discourse from women of color and trans women, in particular.

Acknowledging these shortcomings does not deny the positive impact that feminism has had in this country. Women gained the right to vote. They won the ability to pursue careers and established protection that allowed them to fight back against discrimination in the workplace. Access to contraception and abortion was secured. Good work continues today on other issues. I point out these failings because there’s an important lesson within. The rate of progress has been hampered by the unwillingness of a portion of the movement to interrogate their methods of advocacy. Just imagine how much more could have been accomplished by now had the movement not alienated potential allies with racism, heterosexism, and transphobia.

The only way we avoid repeating history is by learning from it. So when aspiring allies in any realm of the fight for social justice start down those same paths, it behooves us to call out the behavior and encouraage each other to not make the same mistakes as those who came before us. This form of intersectional self-criticism is of benefit to us all, and serves as a means of accelerating progress. Doing so is not easy. Being an ally takes work. It is not a title you claim; it is a position you earn. But if the result is faster, more complete progress, the effort is well worth it.

History and Dawkins

These painfully learned lessons are what motivated the initial article. The piece was about urging Dawkins, with all his influence, to apply historical and cultural consideration to the way he advocates for Muslim women fighting the good fight. It was about not making the same mistakes we’ve seen repeated over and over again throughout the course of world’s fight for progress. Let’s break that down further.

Islam’s feminist revolution is underway, and has been for some time now. It may not be as advanced or visible as Dawkins and the rest of us would like, but there are women within the faith working hard to attain political, social, and economic equality for Muslim women, particularly in nations where Islam and government are inextricably intertwined. To want to contribute to their noble pursuit is laudable, but in reflecting on history, it becomes clear that we should be measured in our approach to doing so. These struggles are taking place in a very different cultural context than Western feminisms’ wars. There are disagreements within these feminist communities as to how the movement should proceed. The conflict is complex, and demands a nuanced approach to allyship, particularly when coming from a place where one does not have first-hand life experience within the context in question.

This informs the criticism. When I point out that Dawkins is white and male, it is not to say that being white or male is inherently bad. When I criticize his activist efforts as a white male, it is not to say that white men should not participate in activism supporting people who are not white or male. It is to say that, as he has not lived as a woman, a Muslim, or a person of color — designations held common amongst a large portion of the most severely impacted by this issue — it is particularly important for him to be self-critical when engaging his influence, to consider history and culture in his attempts.

There is a heightened level of responsibility for Dawkins. His high profile and large audience grant him a great deal of influence. Influence is power. It is the ability to inform, motivate, and shape the behaviors of others. And with such power comes responsibility, even in the context of character limits.

The best way for us to help is not to blaze forward without recognizing the work that has been done. It is to start by seeking information and understanding, follow with acknowledging the victories attained, and continue with asking members of the community how support can be provided to existing efforts. Dawkins’ mistake was skipping the first two steps.

As atheists, not members of the community in question, we must not stumble by assuming the role of sparking others’ revolutions, particularly when they already exist. We should strive instead to be those who support them. Though the impact may not be readily clear today, history shows us that any other road is an unnecessarily slow one. This was the crux of the original piece.

Lessons for the Atheist Community

What followed the publication of this criticism further proves the need for that intersectional self-criticism within atheism. Though the essay was a criticism of rhetoric, the backlash largely ignored this and was stunning in its lack of engagement with the substance.

Many of the rejoinders came from people who seemed not to have read the post. There were calls to prove Islamic feminism existed (something demonstrated with outside literature — check those links, folks). There were incredulous, exasperated demands about how he possibly could have engaged fruitfully in light of my criticism (I point you to the last paragraph of the piece). There were claims that I was ignoring the plight of Muslim women in danger (read paragraph four). There were angry accusations of cultural relativism (ignoring that I cited, linked to, and reflected the opinions of many — not all, but many — Muslim feminists).

The list goes on. So many of the laments were directly addressed in the piece, but that didn’t stop the rageful comments pretending they were not.

A great deal of the reactions didn’t even pretend to respond to the piece. Instead, they resorted to personal attacks. I have since been called a sexist, a bigot, a racist, heartless, malicious, retarded, vile, evil — all for having the gall to criticize the rhetoric of a prominent atheist, for believing we were capable of more.

To be sure, not all the reactions can be characterized as such. Some raised valid questions, which is why this response was written. But the reactions that were defensive at best and derogatory at their ugliest were overwhelming. If this is how the community responds to calls for growth, we’re in trouble. If the community does not condemn such reactions vocally and publicly, it’s not just Dawkins failing to learn from the history of intersectional struggle; it’s the atheist movement as a whole.

We can do better. We should do better. We must do better. And that, from the beginning, has been the entire point.


Side note: I’ll say here what I said at the original post. I will engage *substantive debate* in the comments section on this post. If your comments are addressed in the piece and you ignore that, or if your comment does nothing to further the conversation at hand, your comment will hit the trash bin. Fair warning.